6 May 1933: Thinking through History (before the General Election)

On this day in 1933, a group of Nazi students stormed the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin. Leaving a trail of destruction, they removed most of the Institute’s library and a bust of its founder, Magnus Hirschfeld. A few days later, on 10 May, these materials would be set alight on Berlin’s Opernplatz – the opera square –  an event that marks the beginning of the infamous Nazi book burnings (for more information click here).

“Bundesarchiv Bild 102-14597, Berlin, Opernplatz, Bücherverbrennung” Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Wikimedia Commons.

In his diary – or what he calls in German his Testament, a word used to refer both to a person’s will and their legacy – Hirschfeld writes about the deep distress he felt when his lifework was set alight on a Scheiterhaufen. The English translation ‘pyre’ does not fully capture the strong associations of the German term with the early modern witch hunts. Yet Hirschfeld clearly drew on this difficult history to articulate his own experience of persecution and terror.

It is not uncommon that discussions of collective oppression and injury turn to ‘history’ to make oversimplified comparisons between distinct kinds of experience and circumstance. While we should be critical of such approaches – it is important, for instance, to recognise the distinct histories of antisemitism and homophobia that informed the Nazi attack on the Institute – remembering certain moments in history at certain points in the present nevertheless has its uses.

Eighty-two years after the events of May 1933, Hirschfeld’s tragic fate has itself come to stand for past injustice including in relation to the horrific acts perpetrated by the Nazi regime, and how they are remembered. It took until December 2003, for instance, before the German government agreed to a memorial dedicated to the homosexual victims of the Holocaust.

Thinking with and through this history remains an urgent task – especially perhaps today, on the eve of the UK general election when right-wing voices are heard so loudly across the country. This is not to draw a correlation between events of 1933 in Germany and British politics in 2015. But remembering the destruction of Hirschfeld and his Institute nevertheless serves as a poignant reminder that lives are easily turned into targets whose very existence is attacked and denied because their apparent ‘difference’ or ‘otherness’ from an imaginary norm is proclaimed problematic for the nation.

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